Tuesday, August 7, 2007

On The American Pastime Of Jock-Sniffing

A preface: This may seem nonpolitical. But the author's experience has led him to believe that almost everything is, at its core, political. That may be especially true of how people spend their spare time.

As a journalist, I have known my share of sportswriters. Many are intelligent, literate types who enjoy writing about athletic achievements, bringing color and human interest to coverage of the achievers. The old masters like Red Smith and Dick Young were always compelling reading.

And then there are those who seem to live vicariously through jocks. Instead of signing up for city league softball, martial arts classes, tennis lessons, yoga, or something else that might actually be salubrious to their health, they live with eyes cemented toward the Idiot Box, watching exploits of physically gifted but otherwise mediocre people who probably dissed them as pussies, nerds and male cheerleaders back in college.

In my twenties, I was much more of a sports fan than now. When the Houston Astros finally became a winning baseball team, I listened to their untelevised games on a quaint device known as a radio. I became such a boxing fan that I could recount Muhammad Ali's record in detail, and the highlights of many of his individual bouts. And he wasn't the only boxer I was that knowledgeable about. I could compute batting averages in my head. I learned more math that way than I would have in a statistics class.

In my early fifties, I'm bored with the whole thing, and the jocks have largely turned out to have cleats of clay. It was never news that many of them weren't role models. It was common knowledge, in his time, that Babe Ruth's idea of being in training was when he drank only beer -- no Scotch. Ty Cobb was also a fast-living type, and one of the meanest SOBs who ever spiked a second baseman. Mickey Mantle, my boyhood idol, I later learned was an alcoholic and an inveterate womanizer.

They all seem preferable now to the calculating multimillionaire steroid abusers who have come to light in recent years. I prefer rakes and reprobates to cheaters any day.

Barry Bonds, now on the verge of becoming baseball's all-time home run king, is under investigation regarding allegations of steroid use. We will probably never know if drug abuse was a key factor in his achievements. But I read a recent comment by Nolan Ryan, who pitched to Bonds when Ryan was near the end of his career and Bonds' was blossoming. Ryan acknowledged that Bonds was always an intimidating hitter. But he also said that when you look at old video of Bonds back when he was a Pittsburgh Pirate, he doesn't look like the same guy as now. The same head, but with a strikingly different body in a much bigger uniform. Does this suggest something?

Then there's Michael Vick, charged in federal court with dogfighting. Yes, he's innocent until proved guilty. But here's a link I couldn't resist: the Michael Vick Dog Chew Toy. Go to this site to buy this for the canine in your life. (Postscript: Sorry, the site owners changed this, and now the link doesn't work.) (They changed it again, so now it works for me.) If Vick were merely accused of 'roid abuse, at least he wouldn't be suspected of that kind of subhuman sadism. Boozing, brawling and womanizing somehow don't compare with people seeming to regard themselves as that far above the law.

I started out discussing sportswriters, but the pastime of jock-sniffing affects tens of millions of Americans. I can't tell you how many times I've politely brushed off the start of a "How About Them Cowboys" conversation, and with somebody who obviously never played football. Whether the Dallas Cowboys win the Super Bowl or go 3-13, they have nothing to do with my life, or with the lives of the people who try to converse with me about them.

Please, Americans, spend some of that spare time power-walking instead of vegging in front of ESPN. It will cut down on the obesity problem. And perhaps there would be fewer multimillionaire sociopaths.